Results have started to trickle in from Southwest Colorado’s first attempt at widespread community testing for the coronavirus, showing promising signs that strict social-distancing guidelines may be working.
Southwest Colorado, like nearly all communities across the U.S., has struggled with the ability to test for the virus, making it hard to track the disease and hard to get an understanding of how widespread it is in the region.
San Juan Basin Public Health, leading the emergency response effort, has conducted 140 or so tests in La Plata and Archuleta counties, but local hospitals are not required and have not disclosed how many tests they have carried out.
With the limited tests conducted, La Plata County as of Tuesday had 45 confirmed cases and Archuleta County had seven. Neither county has reported any deaths, but that may also be a result of not enough tests being performed.
Last week, however, a local private lab, Cedar Diagnostics, announced it had the ability to offer widespread community testing, which started Thursday in Durango, Cortez and Pagosa Springs.
Michelle Roach, director of operations for Cedar Diagnostics, said Tuesday that the lab tested about 200 people from Thursday to Monday, and out of the 90 or so results that have come back, only two people have tested positive for COVID-19. (A previous version of this story said Cedar had performed more tests, but that higher number included testing that had been done prior to when widespread testing became available last week.)
“That’s a really low positive test rate, which may mean everyone is staying in and not getting exposed,” Roach said. “But I don’t want people to think the virus isn’t here.”
Most people coming in for testing are showing symptoms of the virus, like fever, coughing or shortness of breath. Others are people who have had known exposure with someone who is infected.
Both people who tested positive were over the age of 60, Roach said, and had just come back from traveling and believed they had been exposed to the virus.
“I call patients personally to tell them they are positive,” Roach said. “So far, the people I’ve called are not surprised.”
Liane Jollon, executive director of SJBPH, said there is a fair amount of evidence across Colorado that social distancing is working, but it’s still too soon to draw conclusions from the limited number of test results in the region.
“Three days of testing doesn’t tell us enough to say anything with confidence,” she said. “It’s still a snapshot. When we build a longer history, we’ll be able to see if our cases are rising or falling.”
No slacking on social distancingThe preliminary results, Jollon said, are no reason for people to start slacking off with social-distancing guidelines.
“One positive case could turn into 400 positive cases without any social distancing in place,” she said. “That’s what the evidence shows us right now with the contagion factor for this disease.”
Health care experts with Mercy Regional Medical Center said last week the expected peak of coronavirus cases would be around April 24.
But Toni Green-Cheatwood, physician executive for Centura Health, Mercy’s parent company, wrote in an email Tuesday there is a lot of predictive modeling occurring, causing fluctuations in when the peak is expected to hit.
“We’ve seen models which say mid-May, and we’ve seen models that said two weeks ago,” she wrote. “We’re monitoring trends on a daily basis and planning accordingly with real-time data.”
Green-Cheatwood said that Mercy, Durango’s largest hospital with a capacity of 82 beds that can jump to 160 in an emergency situation, has yet to see an influx of patients.
“Bed occupancy is a fluid number,” she wrote. “It’s lower than we’d normally see at this time of the year due to the lack of elective cases and the stay-at-home order.”
Green-Cheatwood declined to give the number of tests Mercy has conducted or how many positive cases came from the hospital.
Calls to Animas Surgical Hospital CEO Joe Theine were not returned.
How to build a testCedar Diagnostics has fulfilled a major need in Southwest Colorado with the ability to offer unlimited testing, local health experts say.
The Durango lab tirelessly searched for test kits across the country, finding a facility in New Jersey to secure 800 kits. And, this week, Cedar Diagnostics is rolling out its own test, which will have unlimited capacity and results in about a day.
To test for COVID-19, a nasal swab is collected and put into a tube, which has a “viral media” inside it that keeps the virus alive until it can be tested. The lack of those swabs and viral media has been the cause of shortages across the country.
Cedar Diagnostics’ team of physicians and molecular scientists in Denver were able to create their own tests kits, which received Food and Drug Administration approval, Roach said.
“This is what they do,” Roach said of her team. “It just happens to be what we have chosen to specialize in.”
Test for immunity?What has Roach and her team perhaps even more excited is a developing antibody test, which is pending approval from the FDA, expected to be ready for Southwest Colorado residents in the next two weeks or so.
Across the U.S., scientists are scrambling to develop a test that would show whether someone has been exposed to the virus and may have immunity, which may help some people get back to work where appropriate.
Roach said once in place, the Durango lab alone could test up to 4,000 people a day.
“I think it’ll be a game changer for how quickly we get back to normal here in the Four Corners,” she said.
The FDA approved the first antibody test April 1, but questions linger about how long a person’s immunity may last. And, tests usually show whether a person has antibodies to fight off COVID-19, but not necessarily how well it will fight off the virus.
Jollon said antibody testing is another piece of the puzzle in combating the coronavirus outbreak, but a lot of unknowns remain with the disease that has been studied for only about 90 days.
“So we have to be really careful what we plan to do with that information,” Jollon said.
firstname.lastname@example.orgA photo caption in a previous version of this story incorrectly said Mandy Brown was showing symptoms of COVID-19. The story has also been corrected to give more accurate test results and to say Cedar Diagnostics’ antibody test is pending approval from the FDA. Incorrect information was given to the Herald.